Why dormitories are not for grown-ups
It was one of those nights when the mind drifts in and out of sleep that ends up in a morning of incessant yawning and a yearning for the next night.
You also have a good recollection of the events of the night, especially those involving the sense of hearing. If you live in environs where neighbourhood dogs come to life at night, you can even assemble an imaginary dogs’ Acapella choir that taps into the rich tonal variety of their barks. Or listen with a mixture of envy and anger at the snoring humanity.
I heard the footsteps approaching. It was some minutes to two in the morning, an hour that noises acquire a magnification of their own. I had been sleeping, or rather lying in bed for nearly two hours and amusing myself with reflections on men’s sleeping habits away from home. It was also a good time to doubt my sanity in reviving boyhood memories by spending a night in a dormitory with strangers.
Even at that hour, the particular footsteps sounded poignant, almost calculated like in moment to a crime scene in a movie. True, it was late but not unusually so on a Saturday night shared with nine men. Besides, our dormitory was the access route to yet another dormitory. It reminded me of being woken up at 3am in what passed for a lodging in Habaswein, Wajir County because more guests had arrived. Could I please create some space by moving my mattress nearer to the guy on my right?
The footsteps stopped at my bed. Again, there was nothing alarming with that. The beds were double-deckers and a bedmate was inevitable. I was on the lower bed that, thankfully, had curtains that offered an illusion of privacy. They, at least, shielded me from the direct lights that automatically flickered on at anyone’s entry.
Out of instinctive caution, I had scanned my surroundings carefully on checking in. They were warnings all over to guests to take care of their belongings. The dormitory had ‘safe’ boxes where one could lock up valuables but whose security didn’t look particularly convincing. There were also cage-like boxes under the bed that allowed for padlocks. I regretted not bringing my padlock and for a moment, I toyed with the thought of borrowing a genius solution from my high school mate.
Ikamati and I shared a class and a dormitory. Infrequently, he would demonstrate flashes of brilliance especially in lessons dealing with money or business to break from his absent-minded default setting.
He was also socially slow, the kind of a boy everyone loves to bully and in his case, this was worsened by general shagginess and an aversion to bathing. It reduced him to a lone-ranger.
But he also came from a filthy rich family with acres of miraa farms. The joke was that he was only in school to grow old enough to acquire an ID. So rich was he that he preferred to buy new uniform rather than wash his clothes. But that was after a month-long of wearing a shirt that was always buttoned up to the full, irrespective of the weather or the hour to conceal its dirty collar!
Apparently, Ikamati tended to receive money at a specific period of the month. The next time he did, some boys conspired to distract him and stole his padlock. He discovered the theft when it was too late in the evening to buy a replacement. Being naturally secretive, Ikamati would rather die than ask a colleague to help keep his money safe.
So he pushed his box next to his bed and, on the spot where the padlock should have gone in, he inserted his small finger and went to sleep. When he woke up the following morning, his finger had lost its assigned position. And the money was missing too!
The footsteps on this particular night belonged to a huge black guy with long dreadlocks that dropped to his back. His clothes were a riot of ‘national’ colours that made it difficult to assign him to a nation either in West Africa or the Caribbean. But he was likely from either of those regions judging by fetishes hung on or lying on his bed.
There was a flywhisk that was almost getting bald from lost hair, a motley of amulets shaped after lizards, two scarfs in Rastafarian colours and what looked like an ostrich feather. And there was a Bible in a black leather case. I had noticed them because I had eavesdropped on my neighbours’ worried gossip in the morning about the guy’s strange habits the previous night.
On this night, he arrived carrying a big, black bag that looked like a body bag. He then stripped to his briefs but it is what he did with his clothes that got me scared. He unfolded what looked like a leso and laid it on the floor. He then placed his clothes over it and walked over them while mumbling mumbo-jumbos and pointing angrily at an open page of the Bible.
He did this for five minutes or so before kneeling down and with raised hands, apparently in a silent prayer. My journalistic instincts nudged me to record the scene on my phone. But then I remembered reading somewhere that sorcerers hate infrared light like witches despise crosses. And as the abracadabra unfolded, I increasingly freaked out.
I thought I had seen in the dim light what looked like a knife sculptured out of wood. When I tried to go back to sleep, I dreamed he had stabbed me on the neck and was collecting my blood in a gourd. I quietly sneaked my hand under the pillow to confirm my wallet and my phone were still there without betraying the movement just in case he was watching. At this rate, I feared I might need a quick dash to safety. I reached out to the frame of the bed, retrieved my trousers and wore them as quietly as I could.
He woke up at the crack of dawn but to more strange rituals. He now rolled the leso into a tail-like rope that he inserted in his underwear from behind. The scarfs were left to hang from his neck while a bandana was tied on his head. In a slow motion, he emptied his wallet to reveal a bundle of English pounds. He then picked each note, spat on it and slapped it repeatedly against his palm while repeatedly muttering what sounded like ‘riswa’!
When he dressed up after a quick shower, I found some solace in noting he wore a priest’s collar. When he left with his black bag on his left hand, he carried the Bible on his other hand!
It was around 6am when he left. I couldn’t wait to get up and out. I dashed to my colleague from Rwanda who was sleeping in the next bed. It is him who had firmed my idea of spending two nights at the dormitory that advertised itself as a truly international experience, especially for students visiting London briefly.
He had his own tale of misery, albeit comparably sufferable. He had been assigned the top bed. But the guy below was an eloquent night-talker with a penchant for Brother Ocholla-like confessions. In heavily-accented Indian English, he had spent the night in a dreamy recitation of his affections for Rahin or such a name. But instead of a cloud nine, he was promising her spicy pizza and chicken wings from London.